Julie M. Goolsby, M.A., received her Master's degree in women's studies from Georgia State University.
Today it's so easy to transport food long distances that we take it for granted that we can eat fresh berries in January or have avocado toast every day. Yet many of us have no clue when fruits and veggies are actually in season where we live.
As little as 100 years ago, most people knew the best time to pick blueberries or which vegetables would grow best in their area and when. Now our modern lifestyle of convenience has caused us to lose touch with these basic ideas.
Even if you aren't growing a garden (which you totally should!), knowing what is in season, and eating to match that, is still important. Here are some of the best reasons to eat by the seasons and some pretty sweet benefits that come along with it.
Why you should be eating with the seasons.
The concept of ritucharya breaks down what to eat during each season to maintain health and prevent disease. Although the seasons and foods included are specific to the Indian subcontinent, the philosophy still applies no matter where you live.
Besides the health benefits you can gain by eating in season, seasonal foods typically taste better. Plus, foods that are produced in season are better for the environment and easier on your wallet.
It's better for your health.
Foods that are grown and consumed during their appropriate seasons are more nutritionally dense. In a study monitoring the vitamin C content of broccoli2, it was found that broccoli grown during its peak season (hint: fall) had a higher vitamin C content than broccoli grown during the spring.
When foods are grown out of season, they aren't able to follow their natural growing and ripening rhythms. In order for certain fruits and vegetables to be available year-round, post-harvest treatments, known as ripening agents, are used3. These include chemicals, gases, and heat processes. Some produce is also coated with an edible film to protect it.
These processes allow foods to be produced in mass quantities by slowing the maturation and ripening process. They also help to protect the produce from bacteria and other pathogens on their long journey from the fields to your local grocery store.
While this process ensures that farmers can meet consumer demand year-round, researchers have found that artificially ripened produce is often not as nutritious or tasty as naturally ripened produce4.
Research has also shown that seasonality can affect the nutrition content of other food products as well, particularly dairy products. A 2018 U.K. study5 analyzed cow milk from local creameries in Northern Ireland to assess the iodine and selenium content. While the researchers found that the selenium content was not affected by season, they discovered that milk produced in the spring had a higher concentration of iodine than in autumn. Milk is the most important source of iodine in the U.K. and Ireland, so seasonal changes could have a big impact.
It tastes better.
Have you ever noticed that tomatoes grown in your neighbor's summer garden taste much sweeter than the ones you buy at the supermarket?
Mass-produced produce intended to meet global consumer demand tends to suffer from a lack of flavor. The goal of large commercial farms is to produce a volume of "product" to meet high demand. Unfortunately, quantity and appearance override taste. Selective breeding favors uniform ripening and shelf life over flavor6, leading to lackluster tomatoes and tasteless strawberries.
On the other hand, naturally ripened fruits and vegetables grown and picked in season are typically full of flavor and nutrients. Don't believe me? Take a trip to your local farmers market for a taste.
It's better for the environment.
Sticking to local produce can be a great way to help discover what is in season near you. And this combination of seasonal plus local is better for the environment.
Think about it: How far did the pear or eggplant you bought at your local grocery store travel before it was stocked on the shelves? Did it come from your local farmer, did it drive across the country, or did it arrive by airplane?
Most of us give little thought to the effects of this long-distance travel on not only the nutritional value of our food and the costs but also the environmental impact, including fuel emissions. But the fact is, more than half the fruit and almost one-third of the vegetables bought in the U.S. are imported.
Consider buying locally grown produce. This is a great way to eat with the seasons. Plus, these foods don't have to travel nearly as far, so the associated fuel emissions and transportation costs are minimal. Added bonus: Buying local helps support your local farmers.
To explore seasonal foods in your area and support your community, try visiting your local farmers market, or try joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture). When you visit a farmers market, holistic nutritionist Sara McGlothlin explains, "Not only can you find fresh produce, meat, and seafood at lower prices, but items are almost always organic, and you're supporting local as well. This also guarantees you eat more seasonally, as what is available is what nature can provide at that time." Or you could try growing your own produce in a small garden.
When a fruit or veggie is in season, it's abundant and, not surprisingly, it's available at a lower price. For example, summer is berry season, so that's why strawberries and other berries are so cheap during the summer.
Meanwhile, if you're craving grapefruit in July, you'll probably pay twice as much as you would in December. Why? Grapefruit is in season during the winter, so the supply is higher, driving down the price. In fact, Anna Waldron, R.D., says, "My No. 1 tip for saving money on healthy food is to buy in-season produce (it also tastes better)." The bottom line is that eating with the seasons will save you money.
So, what is in season?
Are you ready to start eating seasonally but not sure where to begin? Below are general lists of foods by the seasons to help you.
Keep in mind that where you live makes a difference in what's available during each season, but this can give you a general idea.
- Bean Sprouts
- Leafy Greens
- Bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
- Swiss chard
- Winter squash
To find out more about the produce that's available where you live, check out seasonalfoodguide.org.
Julie M. Goolsby, M.A., is a writer with a passion for natural health and wellness who currently lives in the Nashville, TN, area. She received her Master's degree in women's studies from Georgia State University and a certificate in holistic coaching from Radiant Coaches Academy.